Being on a jury is a fraught business, particularly if you are friends with those whose work is in the mix. Not only do you suffer from bursts of imposter syndrome, you are constantly wracked by thoughts of what your friends will think and feel. So having just come through one such process, here are some reflections on why it is worth doing.
What do honour lists really mean? Of course, there is and must always be delight at winning awards, but creative work is foremost about subjectivity. As the Bard told us so long ago: “…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” While awards and honours must be celebrated, we must be conscious of doing so with a little detachment, a little awareness of whose thinking is at play. Juries and honour lists privilege the thinking of a set of people and the attempt has to be made to find diverse sets each time to mitigate this. A little irreverence for all that sounds definitive is always a good thing. To my mind, an honours list is a little like looking for a school for your child. Of course you make the attempt to find the “best” school but if you imagine that your child is going to be educated only in school, then you have missed a huge part of the puzzle.
Having said that, I do think that an initiative like the Parag Honour List is important, particularly in the context of Indian children’s literature. The last two decades have seen significant strides in the space. There are more publishers, more variety in books being published, more emphasis on not preaching to children, and immense beauty in the artwork accompanying the stories. And yet, sadly, there are still many parents, teachers, librarians who remain unaware of these books. The work of Indian writers and illustrators still needs to be publicised widely to make their way past grown-up gatekeepers, into bookshelves across the country. In this context, a list like the Parag Honour List becomes a good way to reach out, to encourage discovery and exploration.
Honour lists across the world have become a fulcrum that bookstores design their sales around, and libraries anchor their activities around. They encourage conversations on the specific books as well as on ideas of what makes a good children’s book. Embedded in this facilitation of shared experiences is an important and necessary act – community-building. The idea that we can form our own community networks based on things that we choose to share, and not just those that we inherit or are born with, is a simple but powerful one that art opens up. Literature for children helps them to experience that – that we can forge bonds through shared pleasures. And so, curated lists that can offer more opportunities for such pleasure are definitely worth pursuing.
For us, as the jury for the Parag Honour List 2021, the endeavor was to keep children at the heart of the process. As a group of 3 adults, how did we do that? I think, first of all, it was by acknowledging that a good children’s book is not just for children, and that just as adults do not want to be patronized, children should not be talked down to. And then, it was by looking for work that made space for children’s voices and their agency. It was by responding to beauty and whimsy in the writing and art. We cannot say that all children – or adults -will agree with our selection but we must remember that all children may also not agree with each other’s selection – and that’s ok. What the list seeks to do is to introduce you to some books, to variety, to possibility. And then it is up to you to run with it. Chart your own voyage through the ever-expanding landscape of Indian children’s literature. The honours list is a milestone marker, it is your journey that is the narrative.